Online learning encompasses a range of technologies and teaching methods ranging from text-based tutorials made available on the internet to IPTV and interactive webinars with multiple participants. Why would a law firm want to implement online learning? According to responses to a question asked of the audience at the SCL event, time and cost pressures are the most likely motivators (see Fig 1.) However, there may also be good learning reasons for introducing online learning.
Dr Julia Hörnle, Course Director for the LLM/Diploma programme in Computer & Communications Law (www.law.qmul.ac.uk/postgraduate/llmdistance/llmcomms/index.html) at Queen Mary, University of London, explained that the impetus for developing online learning courses came from the College’s large number of overseas students, who did not wish to interrupt their work to come to London to do a traditional presence LLM. Those students wanted flexible part-time learning with modules which could be studied independently. Similarly, in law firms, busy lawyers demand short sessions which they can fit around their client work, rather than being taken away from their desks for several hours. Learning online also increases the availability of courses where tutor and learner are in different time zones.
Online learning also provides a ready means of using the ‘feedback loop’ in order to cement learning and make it more likely to be recalled in the future. Online courses can be reviewed or segments replayed, as and when the questions considered in those sessions arise in practice. Claire Line, Learning Technologies Manager at Lovells LLP, demonstrated an intranet course for increased productivity in the use of Microsoft Outlook, of which individual segments can be replayed when the Outlook actions are about to be put into effect. This has proved to be very popular at Lovells. Fellow speaker Ann Hemming, Head of Online Learning at Tikit, showed how Tikit’s InterAction tutorials are similarly packaged into two-minute learning modules called ‘nudges’, teaching how to use specific features of the product.
The foremost consideration must be the learners themselves. As Claire explained, individual capabilities in terms of using online learning vary greatly. Trainees coming into law firms from higher education have high expectations in terms of the use of technology as part of the learning delivery mechanism, and use tools for social networking as part of their daily lives. At the other extreme are the ‘dinosaurs’: Claire recounted stories of people picking up the mouse and using it like a remote control, and even one case of someone putting it on the floor to use as a pedal. For long-term learning programmes, such as those taught in higher education institutions, it is important to overcome the sense of isolation that may accompany learning by remote means, providing for frequent exchanges of messages between tutor and learner. Another challenge is faced by those in law firms learning at their desks: they may fear being perceived as not working if they are seen to be sitting at their computers wearing headphones; or, if they are not using headphones, that they will disturb their room-mate.
Online learning also puts considerable demands on the teachers. Experienced online learning tutors are in great demand and not everyone has the skills to be an e-learning tutor. Even those who have the necessary skills may find it impossible to create online learning courses if they are attempting to fit this task around their other work. It is also difficult to keep up to date with new products and technologies and to be sure of buying the ‘right’ product. For this reason, as Claire explained, Lovells has used an instructional design consultant to work with its training team in the creation of online learning templates. However, development time is likely to reduce in the future as improved production tools are now available which make use of wizards and other time-saving features. Many legal learning programmes have a short shelf-life in terms of the validity of their content, meaning that trainers are reluctant to spend time and money on an online version. Reduced development time will therefore remove a significant barrier to the implementation of online learning.
One of the questions which should be asked is whether the training method needs to be synchronous or whether the tutor and learner can exchange messages separated by time. Asynchronous learning can be enhanced by the creation of online communities, through the use of message boards and so on, which can help overcome the sense of isolation felt by many remote participants. However, in the case of synchronous communications, many online learning tools allow the tutor to interact with only one learner at a time and tutors may feel that they are working ‘blind’ when faced with groups of delegates. For this reason Lovells has adopted Netsupport School for some of its remote IT training, giving the tutors various options in terms of how they see the students’ screens. Another important consideration is whether the learning session needs to be recorded for the future.
Web television or IPTV was identified as a growth area for rapid e-learning in the legal environment: it provides a means of capturing the knowledge of experienced, but time-pressured, legal experts, and can be deployed rapidly. LNTV (Legal Network Television) was the first commercial provider of video training and the typical product was a video cassette accompanied by a set of notes which was to be copied and made available to each viewer. A law firm could simply video its internal presentations and make these with paper notes. Web technologies have, however, improved the co-ordination of picture and written materials. Claire demonstrated a system used by Lovells, with html links forming a table of contents to video, PowerPoint slides, and speaker notes displayed alongside each other.
While the use of film presents a number of challenges for all those involved in the process, a surprising conclusion of the speakers was that learners (particularly those who are used to YouTube quality) will accept a low level of picture quality in video applications but the sound quality is important to get right. The learning will not be effective if the delegates are having difficulty in hearing the presenters; research has shown that this is because poor sound quality raises stress levels of the delegates. Equally, where the speaker is not physically present in front of the delegates, it is particularly important that his or her presentation style should be engaging.
At the SCL event, brave attempts were made to predict the future direction of online learning. Julia thought that platforms like Second Life would become more widely used given the possibilities they present for synchronous communications; and Ann and Claire pointed out that technologies created for gaming are likely to make online virtual worlds created for training purposes more realistic and, therefore, more effective. While the audience were sceptical about the extent to which these platforms will dominate the online world in future, they were entertained by Ann and Claire’s demonstration of a triage training programme for medical professionals working in emergency scenarios featuring Dave, a badly injured avatar who died if they failed correctly to assess his symptoms and select the appropriate treatment. The virtual courtroom, as a substitute for the tradition of the legal moot, cannot be far away.
Elizabeth West is a Business Development Manager at Lovells LLP and a member of the Committee of the SCL’s KM Special Interest Group.